|photo from National Geographic
There has been an increase in T.V. female prisoner shows: Lockup, Cellblock 6 (TLC), Babies behind Bars (TLC), Beyond Scared Straight (A & E), and even Oprah’s OWN channel has Breaking Down Bars. Women are the fastest growing prison population in America and some of the toughest to handle.
The subject of women in prison is a new one for this blog. After a year of posting I think it’s time I wrote about my experiences working in the Criminal Justice system. I spent 28 years working inside of Youth Correctional facilities in California and two years working at work furlough and prison pre-release programs, with male and female inmates, young offenders and older inmates. This has been a huge part of my working life.
I can’t think of a ‘pretty picture’ to accompany this post so I chose the one that I feel is closest to the reality of life inside a prison. Granted, my life has been as a correctional worker, not as a prisoner. but I offer my perspective of women behind and in front of the cell bars.
My career has affected me in so many ways that all three of my works-in-progress (WIP’s) are about characters on both sides of the law. One of the three WIP’s is set inside of a women’s prison and much of the setting is real, for that particular facility.
For now I’ll begin with some background, not of my upbringing , but my career back story. In other words, how did I get from Catholic school to working inside of prison walls?
After changes to my major (Psychology, Teaching, English) I found my niche: Sociology and Criminal Justice. During my Junior year I took a field trip to Lompoc Federal Penitentiary. It wasn’t scary until they let a large group of male inmates into the 16×20 conference room with two Correctional Officers (CO’s) a Caseworker and two teachers.
It was like a show and tell about the programs inside. I was a shapely twenty year old with long hair to my waist. I felt naked as I sat on a folding chair and tried to make myself as small as possible. The teachers and Caseworker spoke and I heard the passion, and tiredness, in their voices. The passion was for the belief in rehabilitation and the tiredness was from the reality that everyone cannot or will not change. The ‘pitch’ was for student tutors, primarily for literacy tutors. I knew enough about the lives of drug dealers, con men and sweet talk that I was not going to volunteer for the program.
During my Senior year I had more loans than scholarships and grants. I applied for a paid internship and that is how I ended up working with a Psychologist and two Probation Officers (PO’s) at a 90 day Pre-Release program for Lompoc Fed inmates. The staff mentored me and had me assist in their paperwork, especially the P.O’s. I spent eight months sitting in small group counseling sessions with a different group of eight parolees three times a week, the Psych, and one PO. I experienced the ‘games,’ got tough quick, learned the prison jargon, the Psych’s language, and the PO’s workload.
My mentors recommended I go into Probation or work at the Juvenile Hall. I decided to apply at a Youth Correctional Facility in my county, graduated with my B.A.in June, and began working in July. I was twenty one years old, a new Youth Correctional Counselor, and my caseload of eight females ranged in age from eighteen to twenty-four. Most of them were older than me.
The Youth Correctional Facility is under the Division of Juvenile Justice which is under the California Department of Corrections. There have been several changes throughout the years and the facility has housed ages 12-24 year old females to 16-21 year old males. It has been solely for girls and women, and then co-ed, back to all females 12-21 and now it’s coed again. The population has been as high as 1100 to a low of 230. Gender changes and population fluctuates in response to sentencing laws, prison overcrowding, and deteriorating structures.
A prison is a world of its own. There are staff rules, inmate rules, gang rules, race rules and others that are best left for another time. Every Wednesday, my intention is to show readers this world, the girls and women inside (which I will refer to as female offenders), the sub-cultures, and the hopes and aspirations of young women doing time.